When Lollapalooza opens in Grant Park on Thursday, it will be a day of many firsts.
Last year, Lollapalooza booked headliner J-Hope, a soloist from one of the bestselling acts of all time, K-pop group BTS. That put the megafest on fans’ radars. But this year’s event features its first K-pop boy band headliner TOMORROW X TOGETHER on Saturday night, and their girl group labelmate NewJeans, a global phenomenon in their own right, playing the event’s opening day. To the delight of many Midwest fans, the Chicago stop is the latter’s first-ever performance in the U.S.
Until now, Chicago wasn’t a must-stop destination for Asian music — that distinction had long belonged to the West and East coasts, which boast bigger Asian American populations. However, Lollapalooza is rapidly changing that reputation with a lineup of K-pop performers, plus a strong contingent of Asian musicians outside of the genre. And fans who trek to Chicago for the music now have a retail store that will indulge their search for merchandise, photocards and albums that are hard to get overseas, and a Seoul-themed bar in River North to dance in.
KPOP NARA opened in May in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. On a recent day, Jin Alonzo, 23, was behind the counter. Front and center stood a display of NewJeans stuffed bunny keychains in five pastel colors that corresponded to each member of the group. Past that sat a spread of TXT’s albums as well as their fandom lightstick, which fans wave in support during concerts.Alonzo said many fans opt to go to Lollapalooza because they can’t afford to fly out to other cities in the U.S. where the bands make their most common stops.
“I think that it’s very nice to finally be recognized not as a flyover state, which a lot of K-pop [tours] kind of treat Chicago as, but it is the third-largest city in America,” Alonzo said.
Alonzo plans on going to Lollapalooza again this year, especially to see NIKI, DPR Live and DPR Ian, who are new to the fest lineup and associated with the Asian American record label 88Rising. The label has hosted concerts in Chicago, but the events have been much smaller compared to its bigger two-day Head In the Clouds Festival in Los Angeles and New York.
Aside from K-pop, other must-see acts across genres like indie rock and pop performing this year include The Rose, beabadoobee, Rina Sawayama, NIKI, The Linda Lindas, DPR IAN and DPR LIVE, UMI, Sarah Kinsley and Cafuné.
Professor Hye Jin Lee, a clinical assistant professor in communications at the University of Southern California, said it is remarkable that Korean pop culture is making its way toward the mainstream in the Midwest through Lollapalooza.
“Chicago is a major city, so it wouldn’t be that difficult to bring in fans from different parts of the U.S. But the fact that we’re seeing these K-pop artists’ presence and concerts outside of coastal area[s] is huge,” Lee said.
Lollapalooza is only for a weekend, but at the Korean bar and restaurant lounge Miki’s Park, K-pop is a theme year-round. Passing through the flower-lined entryway, neon lights and paintings transport bargoers from River North into South Korea’s capital, Seoul.
For the past two years, the bar has become most known for its “K-pop Night” every Friday, offering fans a place of their own to dance and connect unlike any other in the city. Orville Diaz, the bar’s operations manager, said he knew from opening day that the bar had to incorporate K-pop.
“We’re trying to tap into the energy that we can already see,” Diaz said. “Korean culture and K-pop in general has been on this upswing for the last five years. [K-pop Nights] kind of organically happened. And we had to learn it, especially with there not being a lot of K-pop type of places in the Chicago area.”James McElwain, 32, works as the creative director and DJ for K-pop Night at Miki’s Park. A DJ and music producer for 14 years, he is relatively new to K-pop. But now, with the help of fans, he has been fully immersed in the music, even listing his favorite NewJeans’s releases off the top of his head. Both Diaz and McElwain emphasize that fans of the music genre shape the event and atmosphere and even now, decide what the bar plays.
“All these people that were coming … They’re the ones that taught me about K-pop music,” McElwain said.
For some K-pop fans in Chicago, a passion for the music has helped them build a substantial community. Alonzo, who has been a K-pop fan since 2010, said she decided to work at KPOP NARA when it opened earlier this year to find “like-minded people.”
“It’s just really fun seeing [K-pop] be more international and more accessible,” Alonzo said. “I’ve traveled a lot for K-pop. It’s mostly about community.
At Miki’s Park, Diaz said he is excited by the diversity of people he meets at K-pop Night. The team joked it has become the place to meet new friends.
“The assumption is, and I’ll say this because I’m Asian, is that Kpop fans are only Asian; they are not,” Diaz said. “We see on a weekly basis … every age group, every ethnicity, which, again, is amazing. Our tables are pretty close to each other, and you’ll see by the end of the night, tables are all talking to each other [even though] they didn’t come in together.”
As Lollapalooza gears up in Grant Park, Miki’s Park is preparing for a big event of its own: a post-show K-pop rush.
Mendy Kong is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow them @ngogejat.